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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sunday Ship History: Ocean Weather Ships

Before we plan a trip, most of us look at the newspaper, television or a webpage to get the latest weather to see what effect that might have on our trip. Pilots plan their routes around major storms, Navy ships use Optimum Track Ship Routing (OTSR) as a way to get the help of Fleet Weather Guessers in routing around "weather events."

Today much of the information needed for such forecasting comes from satellites and ocean buoys. There was a time, though, when Ocean Weather Ships were out at sea, gathering and reporting on the weather.

The importance of such information came to light during World War II:
The growing importance of airpower in World War II, combined with its sensitivity to weather, led to an ever greater military reliance on accurate forecasts. Knowing if and when your airfields, your enemy's airfields, or the target area would be "socked in" by bad weather was of vital concern to the combat commanders of that war.

As much an art as it is a science, predicting the weather is dependent on the accurate tracking of weather phenomena, particularly storm fronts, from the areas where they originate. In the North Atlantic and Transalpine Europe, that means gathering weather data in Greenland, the Norwegian Sea, and the arctic regions of Norway itself. Though meteorologists of the 1940s had none of the weather tracking satellites which make that job so much simpler today, they were still able to generate usably accurate forecasts for northern Europe as much as 72 hours in advance - as long as they could get the data they needed from those regions.

The need for that data gave birth to one of the most interesting and unique campaigns of the Second World War, the so-called "Weather War." Although it was not a war of major commands and large numbers of troops, ships, or aircraft, it had an important impact on the fighting in the Atlantic and European Theaters. It was the weather data secured by this campaign which enabled the planning and execution of such critical operations as the Germans' "Channel Dash," the Battle of the Bulge, the Allied landings at Dieppe and Normandy, and the entire strategic bombing campaign against the Third Reich.

The Weather War was fought with great stealth, audacity and innovation. Losses were proportionately heavy, and in the end, the Germans had to turn to technology to try to obtain that which they could not gain on the battlefield. Interestingly, a German weather unit, Group Haudegen, was the last Axis force to surrender to the Western Allies in Europe, on 9 September 1945.
While much of the key weather information was provided by shore sites (and the tales of the struggles by both sides to keep these sites operating is fascinating - as set out here), in addition to the shore sites, the Allies and Axis navies also posted ships at various locations at sea to provide timely weather information to aircraft, ships and submarines. In February 1941, the Germans had a weather ship, Miinchen, north of Iceland, broadcasting weather information to the U-Boats and other German forces.

Miinchen was to provide more important information to the Allies, who were having a great deal of difficulty with U-Boats and the German codes being used to transmit orders to them. Cracking "Enigma" was aided by events that followed Iceland's declaring independence from Denmark:
The U.S. then replaced Great Britain as the occupying power on Iceland... The British were thus freed to patrol the open ocean of the Greenland Sea, and they scored a major coup almost immediately, finally capturing the Miinchen -complete with its enigma encoding machine with surface ship broadcast settings intact. That capture, along with that of U-110 only two days later, gave the Allies their first real successes in breaking the German naval codes. Then a second weather ship, the Laurenberg, along with its codes was also taken two weeks later. The Allies were thus able to read Germany's U-boat and surface ship codes well into February 1942.
The source of this information "Weather War" by Cdr. Carl O. Schuster, USN is worth reading in its entirety starting here.

The Germans, as noted earlier, were not the only ones working the weather front. The U.S. and the Canadians were active as well. As Captain R. P. Dinsmore, USCG (Ret.) writes here:
The advent of World War II brought about a dramatic increase in trans-Atlantic air navigation. Wartime radio blackouts ended what little weather information was available from ships at sea. The transoceanic airlines, chiefly Pan American, supported by the Weather Bureau strongly advocated weather reporting ships. In January of 1940 President Roosevelt directed the establishment of the "Atlantic Weather Observation Service" using Coast Guard cutters of the 327-ft "Secretary" class and U.S. Weather Bureau observers. Announcement of this service and descriptions of the ships were given to the belligerent nations. Most flights at this time were using southern routes and the stations selected were on the tracks from the U.S. to the Azores.

On February 10th 1940, the cutters Duane and Bibb occupied Ocean Stations 1 and 2 - the forerunners of Stations E and D (see chartlet). Additional Coast Guard cutters which rotated on 21-day patrols steaming within a 100 mile radius of the assigned station included the 327ís Hamilton and Spencer. The ships were under the operational control of the First Coast Guard District but orders actually came from Washington. In mid-1940 a third station was established northeast of Newfoundland (near later Station C) in order to support military aircraft flying to England. Cutters of the 250-ft Champlain class and 240's Mojave and Modoc were added for this duty.

The Coast Guard was placed under the Navy on November 1st 1941 and the weather ships became part of the Atlantic Fleet but operational control remained with the Boston Coast Guard (it was then termed "District Coast Guard Officer, First Naval District").

In 1942 Lend Lease supplies to Britain resulted in short range aircraft flying the northern route over Greenland and Iceland to the U.K. In support of these routes, the program was expanded to include northern stations shown as A and B on the chartlet. The Champlain class (10 ships as part of the "destroyers for bases" trade) had been transferred to the U.K. and ships to occupy the stations were drawn from the wartime Greenland Patrol under Commander Task Force 24 (now Rear Admiral Smith), and included the 165-ft cutters Comanche, Mohawk, Algonquin, and Tahoma, and the old icebreaker Northland.

With the U.S. entering the war, in 1942 the 327-ft Coast Guard cutters were withdrawn from weather patrol and diverted to anti-submarine duties. Replacements were five old World War I cargo ships, 247-ft, obsolete and scarcely able to make 9-10 knots speed. These ships lasted barely a year, and one, the Muskeget, was torpedoed while on Station I, about 400 miles south of the Grand Banks. Their replacements were an assortment of available vessels: buoy tenders (Evergreen, Conifer, and Sorrel), converted luxury yachts including the Sea Cloud and Nourmahal, and two ex-Navy "Q-boats": an old tanker, the USS Big Horn and an ancient freighter, the USS Asterion. Q-Boats were heavily armed vessels disguised as merchant ships to lure enemy submarines into combat. Reports by crew members of the Big Horn assert that the ship continued as a Q-boat even as a Coast Guard-manned weather ship. No information is available for the Asterion except that the heavy armament did remain on the vessel during the relatively short weather ship operation.

During 1943 and early 1944 North Atlantic stations were moved around to fit air routes in use. Some reached as high as 64 N.; first as "plane guard", then weather stations when trained weather observers were available . On April 1st 1944, the North Atlantic stations were reorganized into a coherent network of eight stations numbered 1-8 and under the control of Commander, Task Force 24 at U.S. Naval Station, Argentia, Newfoundland. British ships would man two additional stations in the Eastern Atlantic. Weather observers which up to now were Weather Bureau civilians were taken into the Coast Guard as Temporary Reserves mostly with Chief Aerographers Mate ratings. There were about 55 of these meteorologists; four had gone down with the Muskeget along with 117 Coast Guardsmen and a Public Health Service doctor. Stations now were designated as a square ten miles on a side. Assigned to man them was a new class, frigates.

Frigates, 303-ft ships designated PF by the Navy and built by the Maritime Commission to merchant ship specifications and design based on the British "River" class, were intended to be cheaply and quickly built escort vessels. However, they had temperamental reciprocating steam engines, and were slower and less maneuverable than their Destroyer Escort (DE) cousins. Seventy five of the 96 built in 1943-44 were manned by the Coast Guard, the remainder going to the Royal Navy. Although inferior to DE's as convoy escorts, they were among the most seakindly and comfortable ships in this size range, and the decision to assign them to weather patrol was a correct one. Nineteen frigates were assigned to the Atlantic weather patrol, and the first of these took up station in November 1944.

Early in 1945 the demand for more stations grew as they demonstrated their usefulness to the burgeoning trans-Atlantic air traffic. By May there were a total of 16 stations in the North Atlantic, 11 of which manned by USCG frigates, and nine in the tropical and South Atlantic manned by British and Brazilian ships (although one later defaulted to U.S. operation). A total of 26 frigates were now assigned. This was the peak number of stations and ships either before or since.

In the Pacific Ocean the role of weather during the Battle of Coral Sea and the increasing volume of trans-Pacific flights resulted in stations being set up in that ocean also. However, it was not until 1943 that the Navy established two stations, one north of Hawaii and another in the Gulf of Alaska (near Station P on the chartlet). The latter was manned by the 240-ft. Coast Guard Cutter Haida which continued to rotate on this station during the remainder of the war. This was followed shortly afterward by three plane guard stations on a line between Hawaii and San Francisco. As the Pacific war moved westward additional stations were set up under air routes and in areas of special meteorological interest. Throughout the war, stations were established and directed by Navy commands. Initially these were occupied by Navy patrol vessels and auxiliary craft but as Coast Guard manned frigates arrived in 1944 most were assigned to weather station duty. One, in the Gulf of Alaska, was manned by Canadian frigates. By the end of 1945 there were a total of 24 weather and plane guard stations in the Pacific stretching as far as Leyte where the CG frigate USS El Paso (PF-41) took station. Altogether, a total of 22 CG manned frigates were assigned to Pacific weather patrols.
A list of U.S. weather patrol ships can be found here.
Among them are 5 "Wind" class Weather Patrol Ships, two of which, in their ice breaker mode, pulled off the amazing feat of being the only U.S. surface ships to capture an enemy surface vessel during the war. The tale of the capture of the Externsteine is very well set out here, with some very good photos.

When the war ended, the weather patrols did not:
Peacetime patrols included the six remaining 327-ft cutters (CGC Hamilton was lost in the war) and thirteen new 255-ft cutters built in 1945-46 to replace the ten 250-ft cutters transferred to the U.K. in 1941. (Of the latter, six were returned and two placed in service for a short time.) The new 255'­s were poorly regarded by the crews which sailed them, especially during early years. They were considered to be very uncomfortable sea boats with unreliable machinery. Modifications made over the years made them more tolerable. To replace the frigates which had been returned to the Navy in 1946, eighteen 311-ft. ex-seaplane tenders (AVP) were transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard. These ships were spacious, comfortable and favorably regarded. They entered service from 1946-49. The U.K., France, Canada and Netherlands continued the use of frigates. In fact, the French and Dutch ships were ex-USCG frigates. Headquarters of the U.S. patrols were New York and San Francisco respectively; and in 1947 the system settled into peacetime routine. By 1948 all U.S. stations were manned continuously except Station H. That station was operated only from 1952-54 and again from 1971-76.

A typical weather patrol was 21 days on-station plus enroute time and about 10-days in port. Four or five U.S. Weather Bureau observers joined the Coast Guard crews during each voyage. A "station" was a 210-mile grid of 10-mile squares each with alphabet designations. The center square, which the ship usually occupied, was "OSî" (for "on-station"). A radio beacon transmitted the call sign of the station and the square in which the ship was located. Overflying aircraft would check in with the ship and receive its position, course and speed by radar tracking, and weather data. Surface weather observations were made and transmitted every three hours; and upper winds every six hours by radar tracked balloons with a known ascension rate. Using radiosonde transmitters and radar tracking, air temperature, humidity, pressure, wind direction and speed were obtained every twelve hours to elevations up to 50,000 ft.
During the Korean War, the effort was stepped up yet again with four additional "stations" being added:
Two were northeast of Hawaii and two were m the western Pacific. To meet this requirement twelve destroyer escorts (DE) were taken out of reserve fleets in 1951 and assigned to the Coast Guard. (Most had been Coast Guard manned during the war.) Although excellent wartime escorts, they were rough riding and not generally favored as ocean station vessels. Converted with balloon inflation shelters and weather offices, eleven were assigned to the pacific duty. All were returned to the Navy in 1954.

The Canadian effort is described here. Like the U.S. the Canadians carried on with the weather ships well into the 1980s, using a variety of platforms.

While the idea of "boring holes in the ocean" while on a 21-day patrol of a weather box doesn't seem all that exciting, the work was important. No more evidence of how important is needed than this tale of heroic sea rescue by U.S. Coast Guard cutter George M. Bibb
It was a combination ocean station patrol and search and rescue operation that brought Bibb and her crew international recognition when, while operating on Ocean Station Charlie on 14 October 1947, the transoceanic airliner Bermuda Sky Queen was forced to make a landing during a gale with high winds and in rough seas when the flying boat ran low on fuel.

The Bibb, under the command of CAPT Paul D. Cronk, had picked up an aircraft on radar heading west at 0232 (GCT) on 14 October 1947. It was the Boeing 314 flying boat Bermuda Sky Queen (NC-18612), on a trans-Atlantic flight from Foynes, Ireland to Gander, Newfoundland with 62 passengers and 7 crew on board. After flying beyond Bibb, the pilot of the flying boat, Captain Charles M. Martin, decided to return to the cutter to attempt an emergency landing because unexpectedly strong head winds had caused the aircraft to consume too much fuel for them to make landfall safely. After establishing communications with Bibb, Martin made a successful landing in the 30-foot seas at 1004 (GCT) near the cutter. After maneuvering close to the Bibb to secure a mooring line, the flying boat lost control and collided with the cutter's hull, damaging the nose of the aircraft as well as both wings and their attached floats.

With the waves cresting at 30 feet and the cutter rolling 30 to 35 degrees, getting the passengers and crew of the Bermuda Sky Queen aboard Bibb proved to be a tremendous challenge. Attempting various methods, including using a pulling boat and various rubber rafts from both the cutter and the flying boat, three passengers of the latter volunteered, only two hours before sunset, to attempt to make it to the cutter using one of the flying boat's small rafts. The Bibb laid down an oil slick downwind of the Bermuda Sky Queen prior to crossing her bow to create a lee for the three men. They then began paddling towards the cutter, but the seas were too great. As they cleared the flying boat, Bibb drifted as close a practicable and threw lines to the men, bringing them safely aboard. This method would prove impossible for the women and children on board, so the cutter launched her motor surfboat that towed a 15-man raft to the Queen.

Using that raft as a bridge between the flying boat and the motor surf boat, the Coast Guardsmen managed to save 28 persons in three trips and get them back to Bibb. On the fourth trip, the surfboat, taking on water after being battered against the hull of Bibb, began to sink. Fortunately Bibb was able to pull all 21 survivors and Coast Guardsmen on board the surfboat and in the raft to safety, leaving 22 on board the Queen. One more attempt was made with a pulling boat that night, but again the rough seas and darkness prevented their success and captains Cronk and Martin agreed to wait until the next morning to save the remaining passengers and crew.

The following morning the seas had abated somewhat and Cronk ordered a rescue attempt with his personal gig. After one successful trip, the gig's engine broke down and the Coast Guardsmen once again launched a pulling boat. The pulling boat successfully rescued the remaining passengers and crew and the captain's gig finally got its engine going again and both boats were then brought back aboard Bibb. Cronk and Martin agreed that it was impossible to tow the Queen to safety and Cronk then ordered her sunk as a hazard to navigation. Obtaining permission to leave the ocean station and return to Boston with all of the souls who had been on board the Queen, the cutter arrived to a hero's welcome. The rescue demonstrated the utility and importance of the ocean station program and historian Robert E. Johnson noted that "The Bermuda Sky Queen incident must rank with the Coast Guard's outstanding rescue feats."
More here, including a letter from a survivor of the Bermuda Queen.

Of course, there is no way of knowing how many lives were saved by the weather information passed on by the Ocean Weather Ships. What we do know is that many brave men went to sea to provide that information and deserve a salute for their efforts.

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